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Fritz Lang’s Diagonal Symphony

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‘Master of the Lens — is Fritz Lang, Paramount producer-director, who is here shown looking through a finder with Kenny De Land, camera technician, on the set of “You and Me”, Sylvia Sidney-George  Raft prison parole drama. Lang works with the precision of a physicist before he is satisfied with a camera set-up. One of his innovations is the subjective camera which records impressions of one player  from the viewpoint of the listening player, and vice versa.’

                        Paramount press release and photo, 1938

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Frantisek Kupka, 1913

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Moholy-Nagy, 1921

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Spione, 1928

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M, 1931

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You Only Live Once, 1937

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M, 1931

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Die Spinnen II, 1920

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Der müde Tod, 1921

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You and Me, 1938

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The Secret Beyond the Door, 1948

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Der Tiger von Eschnapur, 1959

1. The Visual Signature of the Auteur

The visual motif of strong diagonal lines crossing the frame that appears  from time to time in Fritz Lang's films is clearly no accident. For  instance,  to get the pattern of shadows on the  floor shown in the frame from You Only Live Once the shot had to be specially relit, since in the other shots that surround it in the  film it can be seen that the shadows lie in quite different positions.  In the other examples illustrated the compostion has been created by  putting the camera in a somewhat unusual position, or a shot has been  taken that is not at all necessary or helpful to the action of the film, as in the shot of the suitcases from The Secret Beyond the Door, and also in the shot of the rails from Human   Desire. And in the case of The Woman in the Window the production designer's photograph of the real tollgate on which he  based his studio set is taken from a much more banal angle than the  composition that Lang finally got from the set when he shot the film.  Most of these characteristic shots from Fritz Lang's films are  associated with a typical camera position  at eye-level or above, tilted slightly down, and with the lens direction at about 45 degrees to the  walls of the buildings in the horizontal plane. At the beginning of  Lang's career there are only a few clear-cut examples of this  characteristic angle to the decor, but by the time he made Beyond a Reasonable Doubt in  1956 this approach to composition had become quite relentless.

It must be emphasized that what I am  describing is a matter of flat pattern, for this was what interested  Lang, rather than the concern with architectural space so often  postulated in interpretations of his work. In fact his brush with  architectural training was very brief and reluctant, whereas he followed the calling of artist by choice for several years before World War I.  According to his own testimony and the available evidence, his favoured  masters in art were Klimt and Schiele, but it is obvious that their  styles could be of no help when it came to film composition. The only  possible source that I can see for Fritz Lang's most characteristic  compositions is the style of abstract painting using regular geometrical shapes that was just beginning to consolidate after World War I.

The first abstract painting involving  regular arrangements of parallelograms (and hence of diagonal lines) by  Frantisek Kupka date back to the Paris of 1913, but by the end of the  War a number of artists such as Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and Theo van Doesburg  had taken up the motif of regular shapes arranged on the diagonal, and  even Mondrian had a brief flirtation with the regular diagonal line in  1919. The parallelogram motif also began to appear in applied art, and  Moholy-Nagy transferred this kind of composition to his photographic  work as well in 1924. But whatever the exact source of this patterning  in Fritz Lang's films, there is no question but that firstly it had  nothing to do with Expressionism, and secondly that Lang quickly made it his own as far as films were concerned. Besides using this sort of  composition in its purest form in a few shots in each film, sometimes  before or after the actors have been permitted to enter or leave the  frame, he also  used it to form the diagonal grid across which he  disposed the figures of the actors in a far larger number of shots.

Lang's pride in his mastery of this  approach is surely responsible for this and other portraits of himself  that he had taken looking through a Mitchell camera viewfinder, and it  is also the reason that he detested CinemaScope, for such compositions  are impossible within the proportions of the 'Scope frame.

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Moholy-Nagy, 1924

2. The Things Take Over

As  you can see, many of the shots reproduced here are inserts; that is,  they are shots of objects or parts of the human body other than the face.  Now particular cases of Fritz Lang's use of inserts have often been commented upon, but an interesting point  that has not been brought out is the amount of inserts he used. When he  started directing after World War  I, the best American directors,  following on from D.W. Griffith's example, were already making use of a  fair number of insert shots in their films to make dramatic and  expressive points. In fact at the beginning of  the nineteen-twenties it was quite  common for 5 percent of the shots in an American film to be inserts, and in some films even up to 10 percent. Some of the bright young European  directors immediately caught on to  the possibilities of the use of the  insert and followed the American lead. Fritz Lang was among them, and  there was nothing special from a dramatic point of view in his use of  insert shots, or in the amount he used,  at any rate until the last two years of  the decade.

However, by the latter part of the  'twenties a new trend towards even greater use of inserts had developed, this time led by the so-called European avant-garde. (Actually, in  present day terms, the kind of films in question, typified by Kirsanov's Menilmontant (1926), would be referred to as "art films", as  opposed to the truly avant-garde efforts of say Man Ray.) In these films the much increased number of insert shots mostly appeared in continuous strings,  either with dissolves between them, or  more rarely cut straight together, so making up the newly fashionable  "montage sequences".

But when Fritz Lang too began to use more inserts, from Spione (1928) onwards, he did not put most of them in montage sequences, but  introduced them,  as had been the earlier custom, as  single shots into the middle of scenes, at a more or less relevant  point. In Spione 17 percent of the shots are inserts, and from  any ordinary conception of film narration many of them are gratuitous;  isolating objects whose function is already obvious of of no great  interest.

With the coming of sound the use of  inserts decreased sharply in nearly all films, since they had largely  been used as a roundabout way of conveying information that it is  possible to convey more quickly and subtly by the combination of  dialogue and behaviour. But Fritz Lang's first sound film, M, is  quite exceptional in having even more inserts (19 percent) than he had  used in his last silent film. And in this particular case they are all  well applied. Not content with this, in his next film, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse,  he went even further, and more than a  quarter of the shots in this film are of things rather than people. This was some kind of record for mainstream cinema, and again Lang had  reached a situation where a substantial proportion of the insert  shots were nonfunctional, this time irretrievably. On the evidence  available it seems to me that the proportion of inserts used in an  ordinary narrative film cannot  rise above 20 percent without some them holding up the movement of the film, while at the same time not  contributing anything extra to it. While I do not know if Lang  consciously drew this conclusion as well, it is quite certain that he  retreated from this extreme, and all of his subsequent films have less  than 15 percent inserts.

However, to have inserts making up even 15 percent of the shots is quite exceptional for a sound film, the  usual upper limit being about 10 percent, and to get so many into a film in a meaningful way requires some special construction of the script at the writing stage. This was one of the main features of Lang's  involvement in the scripting of his films, as is proved by the fact that in The Ministry of Fear, the only one of his Hollywood films  for which he was forced to accept the script as already written without  his participation, the proportion of inserts quite exceptionally falls  as low as 5 percent. So we can say that, with respect to this dimension  of film form, and taking their context into account, Lang's sound films  are more unusual than his silent films. Nevertheless, the actual way  Lang used inserts in his sound films was till completely in the silent  film tradition, leaving aside the purely decorative use of some inserts  which I have already illustrated. Even the more complex examples in  Lang's films, which have often been discussed, such as the arrow brooch  belonging to the murdered prostitute which the hero in Manhunt turns  into a weapon to kill her murderer, have their models in silent cinema. One such example of the dual function  object featured in insert shots in silent films, just the latest of many I have seen, occurs  in Tod Browning's Outside the Law (1921). In this film the criminal protagonist makes a kite for a little child, and later the crossed sticks of the frame of the now broken kite cast the shadow of a crucifix on the floor to recall him from his  wrongful ways. Such devices were already the aim of the smartest  American filmmakers as early as 1917, but Fritz Lang's diagonal  decorations of the frame were all his own.